Kent trying to bring ‘sexy’ back to downtown

David Yochum

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Four storefronts away from Woodsy’s Music in downtown Kent, Jerry Park is selling everything — computers, coffee makers, tables and chairs.

However, Park isn’t in the retail business.

“The only thing people come downtown for is Woodsy’s and the bars,” Park said. “My operation was kind of a luxury thing. It failed because of the lack of traffic.”

Like frustrated entrepreneurs before him, Park, owner of Battlegrounds cyber-cafe, is another business owner who has given up on downtown Kent. Though Battlegrounds survived two years at 157 S. Water St., Park decided to close his beverage and entertainment business last December.

“As much as I wanted to help Kent out, I needed customers with deeper pockets,” he explained. “Even if I had the means to open another business in the future, I probably wouldn’t open one here.”

Driving through downtown Kent, it seems Park is following a trend.

On East Main Street there are three vacant buildings: an old, multi-story hotel, a former Key Bank site and the bank’s neighboring storefront. On South Water Street, at least five storefronts remain unused, including Battlegrounds’ former neighbor, Discount Cellular. And on South Depeyster Street near Euro Gyro, two of the only buildings on the block are either closed or full of nothing.

“Let’s face it, the central business district is the face of a city — the first and lasting impression,” said Mike Weddle, Kent economic development coordinator.

But for Weddle and local leaders who want to boost downtown’s image, hope is not lost.

Scattered around the city’s empty lots are flashes of a vibrant economy — popular bars and successful, historic businesses such as The Loft, Woodsy’s Music and the Pufferbelly restaurant.

So why do ventures such as Battlegrounds fail while other businesses thrive? Will students ever see bigger businesses, such as Urban Outfitters, Carrabba’s Italian Grille or American Eagle come to downtown Kent? And will current concepts for reshaping and revitalizing downtown materialize?

City officials, store owners and employees have strikingly different ideas about what, if anything, can bring downtown’s “sexy” back.

Trains aren’t sexy

Weddle has nothing against train lovers.

He just wouldn’t encourage them to open a business in downtown Kent.

“A business owner has to be very astute and aware of the market that is out there,” Weddle said. “Say you build model trains in your basement and you want to turn your hobby into a business. So you take all your life savings downtown and rent a space — that is the type of activity you don’t want downtown.”

Aaron Shay and Jeremiah Isley, employees at Woodsy’s music, would agree.

They said many city businesses fail because a chunk of Kent’s core market disappears in the summer, but they also say Woodsy’s has lasted 25 years because of one reason.

“It’s a very multi-faceted business,” Shay said. “We do retail, music lessons, band rentals, home audio installation and equipment repairs. We did sound in Kent State’s Kiva and Ballroom, the Akron Civic Theatre — everything.”

Tom Roehl, a former Stouffer’s manager and co-owner of the Pufferbelly, also said successful businesses are a complete package.

“Highly unique establishments are vulnerable to market changes,” said Roehl, who has seen five different tenants occupy the Buffalo Wild Wings location across from his establishment.

“Twenty-five years ago, my partner and I decided to take a historic building and turn it into a nostalgic restaurant. We aren’t just a burger joint or a bar — we are a moderately priced restaurant that serves consistently good meals, and we have been successful because of management and key employees.”

While Roehl is old enough to remember lobbying for the red-brick road outside the Pufferbelly, the gray-haired co-owner is young enough to want more neighbors who appeal to a university market.

“I am pro-anything that would bring anything downtown — I don’t care if it’s another restaurant,” Roehl said. “When some of these (downtown) storefronts went dark, it took shoppers out. American Eagle would be terrific here, but without other things like a GAP or music store, American Eagle wouldn’t touch Kent with a 10-foot pole.”

Sex appeal

Weddle and Dave Ruller, Kent city manager, would also love to see national food and retail stores downtown.

But don’t expect city council member Ed Bargerstock to approach any of those retailers with a proposal.

“The national chains will laugh at you,” Bargerstock said. “I would be embarrassed to even ask.”

Bargerstock, who operates an insurance and real estate agency, is an advocate of private enterprise. He believes that city government should take a “hands-off” approach to shaping downtown Kent’s business landscape and that private business will dictate Kent’s revitalization.

“American Eagle is not going to come to downtown because Kent isn’t in their business plan,” Bargerstock said. “If Kent was good for national chains they’d be there right now. What would come downtown is another private party that would have a need for a building.”

Skeptical of public efforts that promise to revitalize downtown, such as Campus Link or the Main Street program, Bargerstock said government officials and outside planners wrongfully influence property owners with unrealistic concepts.

“It isn’t what I care about (to revitalize downtown), it’s what the owner of the property and business cares about,” Bargerstock explained. “Everyone has a bright idea, but they don’t want to let private enterprise do the job. You don’t revitalize from city hall or planning groups — if you really want to do something to downtown, put your time, talent and energy into it. Put your money where your mouth is.”

Perhaps the reason why many individuals haven’t been able to invest in their own downtown business is because of the Northeast Ohio real-estate market.

“The market is not very robust,” Weddle said. “If (the City of Kent) owned the downtown buildings we could lease them at fire-sale rates and attract someone to go in there. However, they are owned by private entities.”

Weddle said Kent pays an opportunity cost by having vacant buildings downtown, but a chilly real-estate market isn’t killing plans to usher in business.

In fact, new plans are beginning to evolve.

That was sexy then

According to Bargerstock, downtown Kent fundamentally changed in the 1970s.

“If you wanted to get together for a social event, it was downtown,” Bargerstock recalled. “There was no Hub or co-ed dorms.”

After Kent State built convenient places for students to dine and socialize on campus, Bargerstock said all business from students, except drinking, moved away from the city.

“The university put a burden on the city in a lot of ways and has been a wonderful benefit in a lot of ways,” he explained. “But you have to be mindful of where those barriers are at.”

Ruller said he knows downtown was “the place to be.”

He is confident that Kent still has all the pieces to make a great downtown; however, he said there are ways to recreate vibrancy without winding back the clock.

“Downtown has plenty of bars, so we need to complement them with other food places,” Ruller said. “I think there’s room for national chains and ‘mom and pop’ stores — I’d like to see a Mustard Seed Market down there.”

Ruller is also mindful of downtown housing and retail development, but said the city has trouble getting retail to stick.

“(Retail developers) come and look, but they want to see a place that is in the process of reinvesting or is already in such good shape it doesn’t need it,” he said. “To some extent, they see properties downtown not up to the current standards for retail.”

After watching retailers eye downtown with skepticism, Ruller decided to take an additional step that could help the city finally reach businesses.

The future of sexy

Buxton, a large, strategic marketing research firm, was hired by Ruller to perform a market study and retail analysis for the city of Kent.

While the study is only about 60 percent complete, Weddle said Buxton will provide a list of retailers that downtown Kent could accommodate. The firm could then contact those retailers on behalf of the city for an extra fee.

“It’s easy for Buxton because they’ve done this successfully with other communities and have built relationships with national retailers,” Weddle said. “But it remains to be seen if the city of Kent can buy that extra layer of support from Buxton. At this point, it’s not probable.”

As for the recent Campus Link proposal, a project that would reshape downtown by adding new businesses, a hotel conference center and transportation hub, Ruller and Weddle now seem to be exploring alternative revitalization options.

One reason why could lie at the hands of the Ohio Supreme Court, who ruled last July that the city of Norwood cannot take property by eminent domain and give it to a private developer.

Some Campus Link concepts may have asked the City of Kent to purchase homes and property, prompting local residents to place “not for sale at any price” signs on their homes.

“Campus Link was a fairytale concept — there is no such thing,” Bargerstock said.

Weddle said Campus Link is still alive, but evolving in a state of flux.

“Right Dimensions, the original developer, is not positioned to go forward with the project at this particular time,” he explained. “So we are waiting for the dust to settle from that relationship before we go forward and select another consultant.”

On a positive note, as Kent was winding down its involvement with Right Dimensions, Weddle said a number of other developers, some internationally renowned, approached the city with interest.

He also said the city’s future is not as dismal as some like to project.

“Compared to places such as Alliance, our downtown economy is booming,” Weddle explained. “Compared to places such as Athens or Oxford, maybe we don’t have as vibrant of a downtown as we could.”

But as Weddle and other local leaders wait to change downtown Kent, former business owners like Park remain frustrated.

“City officials should get off their butts,” Park said. “It’s a shame that an area with so much potential is squandered.”

Contact public affairs reporter David Yochum at [email protected]